How autistic adults can contribute to science

The downside to having a brain disorder: Your brain works differently than the majority of humans'. That can make it difficult to participate in society. It puts people at risk for poverty, abuse, and exclusion.

The benefit to having a brain disorder: Your brain works differently than the majority of humans'. That means that you could have something really valuable to contribute to society, if society will make a space for you.

Back in September, Amy Harmon wrote a great long feature for the New York Times Magazine about efforts to integrate autistic adults into the larger community. Now, the journal Nature has published an interesting commentary about how autistic adults can aide the cause of science as researchers. A commentary is basically like an editorial. In this case, a scientist combined several published research papers and his own experience to make a point. The Canadian Globe and Mail had this to say:

Over the past seven years, eight people with autism have been associated with Laurent Mottron’s research group, including Michelle Dawson, who has become a close collaborator. Some of the team members have exceptional memories, while others have an ability to see patterns in data, or other skills, and contribute because of their autism, not despite it, Dr. Mottron said.

... Individuals with autism tend to fare poorly on a standard IQ tests that require verbal instructions, but can do much better on non-verbal tests that measure reasoning and creative problem-solving. They are faster on these kinds of tests than normal volunteers and use a different part of the brain to solve the problems.

Other studies suggest people with autism are also better in a wide range of perception tasks, such as spotting a pattern in a distracting environment or mentally manipulating complex three-dimensional shapes.

...He said that people with autism in the workplace may need mediators to help settle situations that trigger anxiety, giving occasions when Ms. Dawson’s computer crashes as an example.

The new Nature paper is locked, unfortunately. But you can read a 2006 research paper by Laurent Mottron on the same subject.

Via Annie Murphy Paul


    1.  lol im not a scientist but ill be damned if I couldnt be if I wanted to.  I have been diagnosed with aspergers and HFA High functioning Autism.  Truly isnt much I cannot do well, either way you slice it I can come up with solutions to nearly anything but for some reason I am unable to put a single ounce of effort into actually making my inventions/solutions therefore I have literal volumes of insanely great ideas and I am flat broke.

  1. The obviousness of discovering that adult autistics can see things others can’t is a little insulting. :-) Also the trope that all scientists have Asperger’s or whatever is also pretty obvious and too-easily dismissed.

    However, the real message should be: Young autistic people should not be written off, and should not have to struggle to find a place in society. Fast-track them to whatever interests them so they can learn it and know it and enjoy life.

  2. its rather annoying for some with Aspergers. I have a friend who has Aspergers, Cant keep a job down, i even suggested to try volunteer work, which he tried, and got fired from them both. One of his problems is that he does not think he has Aspergers which is not a great thing. His mum was the one that told me about his Aspergers. he’s shunned, people think him weird right away and do not give him a chance.. i have learnt to forgive for things… he did once all of a sudden grab my hair in the middle of a store, and just started laughing, i just made him let go and walked off not saying anything, making him feel as bad as i could… he said he thought it would be funny…. i’ve managed to help him out with various things though, like telling him about a social group in the town which he joined and various other things. No one else is giving him any help, his parents gave up on him, and even sent him to a boarding school as they could not cope with him.   concentration seems to be his big difficulty, i am trying to figure out the best things to suggest, but have no real ideas… annoyingly he is rather trusting, and quite easily led by people, which has got him into various bad situations. 

    for sure like the idea of research based jobs for people with different ways of thinking, sound great!.

    1. @dexter121uk – Your friend sounds almost exactly like my roommate. The hardest part is that the ‘professionals’ (he sees a psychiatrist) seem just as nonchalant and biased as the rest of society. I feel like I’m screaming into a black hole, trying to get people to realize he’s not “just lazy,” he’s disabled and in need of intensive help and support. Unless they’re diagnosed while still a child, and have parents who strongly advocate for them, autistic people are pretty well screwed out of a chance at a real life. :-(

  3. Mostly Autistics and Aspergians need a mediator when they boss is a being a bag of jerks to them, and then the computer crashes.  Hell is other people, being dicks. 

  4. My daughter (who has autism), had an elegant Kobayashi-maru solution to rubiks cube.  She peels off the stickers and puts them back on wherever she likes.

    1. Sounds awfully wasteful. It’s much less work and and disfiguring to the cube to disassemble and reassemble it.

  5. Well, duh!  In my case I’ve noted that in any group of computer science geniuses I don’t solve more problems than anyone else but that I can usually  instantly solve the one that everyone else finds inconceivably hard.  There is usually also one that everyone else thinks is trivial but that I find to be completely obtuse.  This is what they mean by “Your mileage may vary”!

  6. Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen has shown that the closer you get to physics and math, the more nearly the typical practitioner resembles a high functioning autistic.

    For whatever that’s worth.

  7. Simon Baron-Cohen also pushes the idea that autism is pathological, and that autism is associated with an “extreme male brain,” an idea which contradicts some of the data, and erases autistic womyn’s experiences.

  8. I’d post a joke comment about how the Obama administration is secretly poisoning children’s vaccines to create legions of autistic researchers to toil away in underground weapons labs, but it would more than likely end up as a headline on Fox News, ultimately leading to a bubonic plague epidemic, killing billions; and I couldn’t really live with that on my conscience, so I’ll just shut up.

  9. Maggie: I have a HUGE problem with calling autism a “disorder” instead of a trait. It’s clear that all humans exist on various spectra. “Scientists” are often among the most subjective, judgmental, and oppressive forces holding back those who have important outlier contributions to make. When “science” and a repressive society join forces, the damage to humanity is incalculable. Let’s go easy on the term “disorder” in the future. It is not an objective or scientific term, no matter what some shitty “scientist” told you as an undergrad.

      1. @Erin: As you point out, society that does not value the neurodiversity of humanity is the problem. There’s a long history of labeling minorities as “disordered” and “diseased” in repressive societies. That kind of language is not scientific, and it’s not value-neutral when describing human traits and behaviors.

  10. I have it, I am positive, given the chance, that I could do amazing things and change the way the world works today.  The ideas I thought of 20 years ago as a child are just now coming into light.  It is frustrating to no end to have daily ideas and inventions that you are afraid to show anyone for fear of theft.  Only to have them be finally stumbled upon by someone else years later.  I always assumed I would be a rich man when I grew up by the way people were amazed by my thought processes and abilities as a very young child.  Unfortunately for me, I have never made a single dime out of my thoughts, but given the chance I am positive I could make a wealthy man insanely rich while helping the people of earth and saving valuable resources.  I have been diagnosed with HFA High functioning autism, and Aspergers syndrome.

    YES I HAVE TRIED to approach various companies and businesses and nearly every time I am given a standard cut and paste response stating nothing I say can be used or considered in any way. Then a few years later I see them working on it. Oh well, such is life. freetofear@gmail,com

    Call it what you like its like a gift from god, at the age of 12 I was teaching my teachers things…..

  11. In capitalism, everything is commodified, and the only justification for the existence of people is their utility; furthermore, unused utility becomes a kind of affront to the existing order. So autistics are reduced to the Rainman-like state of savants of one kind of another, in hopes of justifying their existence through a new-found utility.

    But, they aren’t savants, or at least there’s not a useful correlation. Autism can be thought of as a pathology of a society that cannot tolerate “useless” members, but that creates ever-more restrictive roles for people to be useful in, producing an ever-larger group who fall outside, if their capacity for subordinating their own qualities to the needs of capital is insufficient.

    There may, of course be people who are autistic or have Aspergers who can make contributions to science, and that’s fine. But to extend this to “autistics” reduces that group to an homogeneity that wouldn’t pass for other groups. Black people have wonderful rhythm, for instance.

  12. The main problem is that high-level technical knowledge is often stratified within rigid control systems that require access through specific lock-step methods (and large cash payments).

    Just take a look at scientific papers containing cutting-edge research that require you to be a “member” of some group to have research access. That membership is just a way of extracting money out of you to gain access to their “exclusive” information.

    College journal collections and industry trade magazines are the same way, charging perhaps hundreds per year for a subscription, or requiring specific industry participation in order for their specialized advertisers to consider you worth their ad dollars.

    The same is true of any number of “code” and “standards” organizations. Pay up if you want access and training, otherwise go to hell.

    The average person is not going to be rich or wealthy, and so unless someone sponsors their access into these highly technical fields they won’t get it.


    Though, I admit I’m a bit of a rabble-rouser in this category. Building and tradeskill codes and standards access should be free to anyone to access. These people have done a lot to enable public access to restricted-access code books:

    I believe technical magazines like “Machine Design” should be in every public high school library. (I am not an engineer by training, but I know what Nylatron is.)

    And I edit technical Wikipedia articles for fun, though I am not a trained expert in any of the fields of the article topics I work to expand.  For example, starting from 06:39, 11 January 2008‎, I took “Dynamo” from an empty redirect and helped turn it into the full-fledged history of electrical technology that it is now:

    So I probably qualify as an unpaid public educator for millions of people around the planet, operating without a license. Heh. (And not being paid for my efforts, either. Sob.)

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